Steve Crounse was watching dozens of teenagers run drills at a combine in May at Penn State when a familiar face started racing toward the Patuxent coach. His top junior, Robert McClain, had just undergone a transformation.
"Coach," McClain yelled. "I ran a 4.38."
Crounse didn't believe it. How could McClain shave three-tenths of a second off of his time in the 40-yard dash from the Maryland Junior Combine the previous month?
So he asked McClain what his time was the second time he ran the 40 yards, thinking the 4.38 time would be an aberration.
It was 4.41.
"Then you start to think, 'This kid's dream is becoming a reality,' " Crounse said. "All of a sudden, he's in the databank."
And just like that, McClain was no longer a ho-hum, 5-foot-10, 190-pound defensive back destined for a small college. Suddenly, McClain had separated himself from the hundreds of other players his size in his graduating class by showing a certifiable Division I talent -- speed.
"Nobody was talking to me before that," McClain said of his recruitment. "I told myself, 'I've got to run real fast.' "
And that's how a seemingly ordinary player becomes a sought-after recruit these days. It is an age of specialization, where raw skills are weighted more heavily than on-field accomplishments. College coaches look at McClain's speed and think they can coach a football player around it.
"He's known that since his sophomore year," Crounse said. "At the end of his sophomore year, we talked about how his feet were good."
McClain moved to Southern Maryland from Aurora, Colo., before his sophomore year in 2003. Still, he had heard about small, fast Patuxent kids proving skeptics wrong. Patuxent graduate Terry Caulley was so fast, it didn't matter that he was only 5-7. Nobody could catch him flying out of the Connecticut backfield.
"A lot of people figure if you're small, you can't come up and play college football," McClain said. "But they overlooked Terry Caulley and look what he did."
McClain doesn't fancy himself the next Caulley. He does, however, feel his speed will be enough to get him on a Division I roster. In the week after his Penn State performance, McClain was visited by coaches from Maryland, North Carolina and Marshall. Towson has offered him a scholarship.
Crounse says McClain is the type of recruit who won't have all of his options until after the season, when schools are looking to fill slots after missing out on top-tier targets.
"He's going to be a December kid," Crounse said. "But it seems like everyone needs a corner[back] this year, and Robert is definitely a commodity now."